Red Bull looked set to shake up the order with some cracking pace in testing and they delivered on that promise in first qualifying session of the year, as Max Verstappen took a sensational pole position, thumping world champion Lewis Hamilton by a staggering 0.388.
Verstappen has marked himself out as the man to beat all weekend in Bahrain, the Dutchman topping the times in all three practice sessions and building on that form by winding up his performance through each segment of qualifying.
He pipped Hamilton by 0.023 after the first runs in Q3 and though Hamilton improved on his second timed lap, the chasing Verstappen was going quicker too with purple times in all three sectors to move back ahead for back-to-back pole positions for the first time in his career.
Mercedes may have been pipped, but with Valtteri Bottas slotting into third, it confirmed that the Silver Arrows had made big gains from pre-season testing and are very much in the fight with Red Bull for the spoils, as F1 enjoyed a genuine two-team battle for pole position.
Charles Leclerc set one of the best laps of his career to go fourth quickest for Ferrari, just a tenth behind the Mercedes of Bottas, to suggest the Prancing Horse have made impressive progress over the winter following their worst season for four decades.
Pierre Gasly will start fifth – equalling his best-ever Bahrain performance – after a brilliant showing throughout qualifying. The AlphaTauri driver is one of only four drivers in the top 10 to start the race on the mediums, so is in a very strong position in terms of strategy for tomorrow’s race.
Daniel Ricciardo beat his McLaren team mate Lando Norris to sixth, with Carlos Sainz failing to improve on his second run and ending up eighth, half a second behind Leclerc. His countryman Fernando Alonso hit the ground running on his return to F1 with Alpine after two years away from the sport with ninth, as Lance Stroll closed out the top 10 for Aston Martin.
It wasn’t such good news for his new team mate Sebastian Vettel, who was dumped out in the first part of qualifying and will start 18th, while the second Red Bull of Sergio Perez failed to make Q3 as he ended up 11th.
Max Verstappen picked up where he left off, having swept the board in all three free practice sessions, as he set a scintillating pace under the lights in Bahrain to top the times in the opening segment of qualifying.
But Yuki Tsunoda arguably stole his thunder with an astonishing lap that put him second quickest, a fraction ahead of world champion Lewis Hamilton in a nail-bitingly close session with the top three split by just a tenth of a second.
It wasn’t the finest of debuts for Nikita Mazepin, the Haas driver spinning twice – the last one coming in the dying seconds of qualifying, which brought out the yellow flags at Turn 1 and forced a number of drivers to back off slightly.
Chiefly affected were Esteban Ocon and Sebastian Vettel, who lost time there and also when the yellow flags were called upon for a slowing Carlos Sainz, who slowed to a snail’s pace with an engine issue before getting going again.
As a result, they were both booted out of qualifying, Ocon ended up 16th, with Sainz scraping through in 15th, and Vettel a frustrating 18th on his Aston Martin debut.
Nicholas Latifi also missed the cut, but his Williams team mate George Russell bolted into the top 10 with his last effort to ease through. Mick Schumacher comfortably outpaced his Haas team mate Mazepin to end up 19th.
Knocked out: Ocon, Latifi, Vettel, Schumacher, Mazepin
The top three had a familiar look after the first runs in Q2, with Hamilton heading Verstappen and Bottas, but the timesheet was turned on its head as several teams opted to run the softs, while Mercedes, Red Bull and AlphaTauri stuck with the mediums.
Leclerc went quickest first, but he was soon usurped by Ferrari team mate Sainz by the narrowest of margins – just 0.001. They occupied the top two spots as the chequered flag fell, with Hamilton holding onto third and Norris using the softs for P4.
While Pierre Gasly made it into the top 10 shoot-out on the mediums with a phenomenal lap, his rookie team mate Tsunoda couldn’t quite get that rubber to work and got knocked out. He’ll start 13th, ahead of Kimi Raikkonen and Russell.
The real shock, though, was Perez’s early bath, the Mexican having his first lap deleted because of track limits and then failing to get the performance out of the medium like his team mate Verstappen did.
He’ll start 11th, best-placed with free choice of tyres, one place ahead of Antonio Giovinazzi as Alfa Romeo confirmed the belief that they are in a much stronger position than they were at the end of last year.
Knocked out: Perez, Giovinazzi, Tsunoda, Raikkonen, Russell
F1 has been crying out for a two-team, head-to-head fight for the title for years – and on the basis of today’s qualifying session, it looks like we might have it in 2021.
Verstappen set the early pace, but his advantage was just 0.023 over Hamilton. They reset to go again, with Hamilton heading out ahead of Verstappen, just behind his team mate Bottas to offer him the potential of a tow.
Hamilton improved, and set purple sectors. But each time he did, Verstappen went one better and that gave the Dutchman his fourth career pole position, denying Mercedes pole in the opening race for the first time in the hybrid era, and setting up a mouth watering showdown in tomorrow’s race.
The Bahrain Grand Prix kicks off at 18:00 local time, which is 16:00 GMT. Verstappen leads the way, but has he got a car capable of holding off a two-pronged attack from Mercedes?